by Don Kazak
What began last week as a desperate search for a rapist who strikes swiftly and randomly, had evolved by early this week into a painstaking Peninsula-wide manhunt for a serial criminal who appears to be well aware of his own publicity. Joining forces with Sunnyvale police and police agencies in both counties, Palo Alto and Menlo Park police tracked down numerous leads through the weekend in their search for the man suspected in five rapes and one attempted sexual assault since Aug. 21. All but one of those assaults occurred last week alone.
"In my 27 years (as an officer), I have never seen a rapist attack so many women in so short a time," said Menlo Park Police Chief Bruce Cumming. "It is unprecedented."
The search was contained to the Midpeninsula for most of the week, but was widened Friday after the rapist struck again around 7:30 a.m. near the Sunnyvale Clinic. Early this week, police were maintaining a round-the-clock effort in an attempt to catch the man. Police in Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Sunnyvale also announced a $25,000 reward for information leading to the man's arrest and conviction.
The Palo Alto Police have also dedicated a telephone line for information from the public on the rapist: 329-2307. Through Monday morning, police had received nearly 250 tips tips.
"We are prioritizing each and every call," said Palo Alto officer Lori Kratzer on Monday. She said people have been leaving names of possible suspects and license numbers of older white vans, which is the type of truck the man is reportedly driving.
Kratzer said that police from Palo Alto, Menlo Park, Sunnyvale, East Palo Alto, Stanford University, Mountain View, the San Mateo and Santa Clara counties sheriff's departments, as well as investigators from the state Department of Justice, are working on the case.
Police also got some help from members of the Guardian Angels who began walking patrols and circulating fliers in the Old Palo Alto neighborhood where the last attack in Palo Alto occurred.
- "There is a violent sexual predator loose right now," said Palo Alto Police Chief Chris Durkin. "We are taking this very seriously and are pulling out all the stops."
Among other things, unmarked police cars were reportedly seen at several key locations during the weekend to monitor traffic entering Palo Alto on several streets.
The attacks began with a Menlo Park rape on Aug. 21. A second occurred on Tuesday afternoon, Sept. 5 when a 16-year-old girl was attacked while crossing the footbridge over Highway 101. Another attack occurred in Palo Alto around 9 p.m. that night when a woman walking the Cubberley Community Center was grabbed from behind and pulled into a van.
That attack, however, was not made public until Sept. 7 after another Palo Alto woman was raped when she was pulled into a van near the corner of Tennyson Avenue and Webster Street around 11 a.m.
Police say that it took more than a day to make the connection between the Palo Alto attack and the Menlo Park assaults because the Tuesday night victim fractured her shoulder and was in shock. Palo Alto detective Luis Verbera was at Stanford Hospital all night waiting for the woman to be coherent. She had been given pain-killing drugs which prevented her from talking to him until around 6 a.m.
The rapist apparently attempted to strike again that night, last Wednesday, at Fulton Street and Hamilton Avenue in Palo Alto, but his intended victim, an 18-year-old woman, "screamed and struggled and got away," said Kratzer.
"If you believe you are in danger, don't be afraid to run or scream," Cumming advised.
The victims, through last Thursday, had all been walking or running alone, often in busy, open areas, mostly in daylight.
"Walk or jog with a friend," Cumming advised. "Walk in well-lighted areas. Walk against the (car) traffic."
Police called a news conference Thursday evening at the Palo Alto Civic Center in hopes of drawing more attention to the crimes. Cumming and Durkin put out a plea for anyone who might have seen the rapist.
Police think he may have attacked other women in the area. "Often, for every attack, two go unreported," Cumming said.
"He is very physical and clearly a very violent person," Durkin said. The man is so strong that he has physically overpowered his victims without the use of any weapon.
"I am positive people have seen him," Durkin said. "This person will obviously keep attacking."
The first four victims of the rapist ranged in age from 16 to 57. "They have no commonalty of age or race," Durkin said.
"From an investigator point of view, he is frightening," Kratzer said.
East Palo Palo police Chief Wes Bowling dedicated his seven detectives to the effort. "Palo Alto and Menlo Park have been so helpful to us," he said. "It's one way we can pay back their kindness."
Palo Alto police also decided on Friday morning to send fliers warning about the rapist to all area high schools, in part because the second victim in Menlo Park was 16 years old, said Palo Alto officer Kratzer.
"We are making sure they (students) know and making sure they know it can happen to them," Palo Alto High School Principal Marilyn Cook said on Friday,
Cook said teachers alerted their classes on Friday about the rapist.
Women in the two cities have obviously been badly frightened by the news of the rapist.
"We're all scared," said Diane Dittmar, a resident of Suburban Park in Menlo Park, near the scene of the first two daylight attacks.
"I go jogging in the morning three or four times a week, but I stopped," she said. "It changed the way we are living our lives."
Weekly reporter Elizabeth Darling contributed to this story.
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